Whether you’re jogging between flights or weaving through cobbled streets, when it comes to heavy luggage, a wheeled travel bag is a far better option than a backpack, as it’s easier to carry and often provides more storage.
Wheeled bags come in sports-friendly models – duffels that will house ski boots and tents – and multi-compartmented, gap year/sabbatical sizes, as well as classic cabin-sized hardshells.
We tested these on a range of trips, lugging them along on just about every form of transport imaginable. To review their practicality, we trusted them with both computer and photography equipment inside: all these bags, even the soft shells, could carry at least a laptop and an eReader safely – one of them could do it underwater.
As well as sturdiness, we looked for cases that are lightweight – because every extra gram your case takes up is a gram off your luggage allocation – and clever internal design.
For smaller bags that you might take on the plane, we preferred cases with separate “in-flight” pockets – these easy to access compartments can take a laptop, book, passport and small stash of liquids, which is enough storage to have you sailing through security like a pro.
For larger bags that you would need to check onto a flight, we looked for capacious compartments with compression straps and no fuss – these bags are intended for long vacations and family-sized wardrobes, not business travel.
Of the two major types of wheeled luggage, hard shells are essential if you will pack any expensive, technical kit; if weight isn’t much of an object; and if you’re an efficient packer. Soft shells are lighter and more flexible, but won’t offer your valuables as much protection.
We tested spinners, which have four wheels that turn 360 degrees for an amazing “gliding” feeling, and two-wheeled bags, which are just fine for sprinting in a straight line for the gate, and tend to stand a bit more stably.
We also reviewed some wheeled duffle bags, which are excellent if you’re planning an active holiday, or if you need to bring a lot of bulky kit, like diving or climbing gear. These, along with convertible backpacks, are great picks if your itinerary is a bit more varied, and your bag could need to survive anything from a river crossing to an approach to base camp.
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Away expandable carry on
We love Away’s range of modern classic luggage, and this smart carry on is a superb addition to the collection. First off, it looks great: smart and understated, covered in a flexible but durable outer with a sleek profile. A four-wheeled spinner, it travels beautifully, even when full, and is easy to organise with a pop-out front pocket for your laptop and a spacious main compartment with dividers. The expansion really sold us on this bag: at 47l to begin with, you already have a generous cabin-sized bag. But unzip the expander and you gain an extra 5l of space – in our experience, this makes the exact difference between neat, pre-holiday packing and end-of-holiday stuffing plus saris and souvenirs.
A beautiful hardshell case with a classy, Art Deco feel. This new range by Samsonite is its strongest yet, made with a shock-resistant outer called Roxkin that looks and feels a bit like carbon fibre. It can absorb and protect your possessions from sudden impact (like being dropped during loading), and comes with a brilliant free servicing and repair service that extends past the warranty period, in case the worst does happen. Given that, we were surprised by how light and maneuverable it was, even in the larger sizes. Inside, the case is sleek and well-designed, with neat compartments and a minimum of fussy extras.
Ogio departure 21
This brand is known for its hi-spec, long lasting suitcases and sports bags and – despite being in the smaller cabin size – this is no different. The smart and attractive spinner has great manoeuvrability that makes it perfect for business trips. It feels really durable, with a super sturdy handle and grip handles. The wheels are excellent, rolling smoothly even when the bag was full. The bag is simple, with plenty of room but without a lot of extraneous pockets. The zippered external pocket is the perfect size for your eReader, tablet and passport, and anything else you might want to grab quickly in transit.
Lifeventure expedition wheeled duffle bag 120
Perfect for a gap year or adventure travel, this budget-friendly wheeled duffle packs a mighty 120l into its unfussy and durable case. This is enormous but, brilliantly, the fabric bag folds up and compresses to a wardrobe-friendly size, so doesn’t take up a lot of space in your tent or hostel locker when you arrive. Duffle bags are a great option if you’re planning to travel around a lot at your destination, or if you’ll end up hopping on and off boats and trains. You won’t ever want to haul 120 litres of souvenirs over one shoulder, though, which is why the wheels are such a welcome addition to this bag.
Gregory quadro 90
This tough spinner is one of our favourite hard shell cases. We love its rugged, industrial look and indestructible outer, made from a high-impact polycarbonate that we have trusted to protect our best camera and laptop equipment in some of the bumpiest airport transits. The bag itself doesn’t feel heavy, and it rolls beautifully on its four wheels. We also love the generous odour and dirt resistant compartment inside: this is perfect for storing your laundry away from fresh clothes, or your sportswear away from your evening wear.
Ortlieb duffle RS
This brand is a market leader when it comes to waterproof, indestructible fabrics, and this expedition-ready bag could survive being submerged in water up to a metre deep for half an hour. With its cavernous, simple interior (we tested the 140l bag), it’s perfect for sailing trips and kayaking, or anywhere you need a lot of kit near water. But we also found it was ideal for camping: wheeling all our kit from the car to the best spot on the campsite in one go was transformative. Add in the weather resistance, and this would be a brilliant festival bag. Padded straps mean you can carry it like a backpack if you get bored of wheeling or need to cross difficult terrain.
Jack Wolfskin trt rail
One of the smartest bags we tested, this backpack-case hybrid is perfect for business trips that turn into mini breaks. We loved the striking, copper-coloured handle and the beautiful quilted outer, which is also water resistant. It was also one of the most organised bags we tested, with a brilliant array of compartments within the front pocket, with space for an ebook reader, phone, laptop and separate spaces for your boarding pass and passport. It wheels smoothly, and comes with detachable straps so you can carry it on your back – which was surprisingly comfortable.
American Tourister airconic
Bright, light and with such a dazzling array of colours to choose from, this hard shell case is perfect for family holidays or weekend breaks. Its two large compartments divide into smaller pockets, and both have easy-to-use, effective compression straps. It wheels well, thanks to the spinners, even when it’s stuffed full. Part of that is down to its slim weight: the largest case, which fits over 100 litres of luggage, weighs just 3.2kg – leaving significantly more weight in your baggage allocation than most hard shells.
Osprey rolling transporter 90l
This is a spacious softshell bag that stays smoothly maneuverable no matter how much you stuff into it. Which can be a lot: out reviewer managed to fit her whole wardrobe into this generous bag when moving house recently. Because it’s so capacious it makes a great holiday pack, with a sturdy retractable handle and four side handles perfectly placed for maneuvering it in tight luggage racks. But it’s also adventure ready, without looking like a sports bag: the case is durable and water resistant, and the thick, sturdy wheels can cope with uneven surfaces and pavement jumps.
The verdict: Wheeled travel bags
Away’s classy expandable is a bag we’ll use over and over, on short breaks and (thanks to the flexible capacity) longer holidays. Samsonite’s proxis was our favourite hardshell, it’s a great looking bag with a long life guaranteed.
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